Conor Oberst has been given many titles: savior, genius, this generation’s Bob Dylan and – less receptively – flat-out hipster.
The work of Oberst’s musical vehicle, Bright Eyes, has been as varied as his monikers. The 27-year-old Nebraska native has released an impressive six albums in fewer than 10 years, although each release has been of differing quality. After releasing the acclaimed Fevers and Mirrors in 2000 and Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil in 2002, Oberst hit a plateau with the two discs released back-to-back in 2005, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. His latest, Cassadaga, is another admirable attempt, but it lacks the dynamic highs and lows that made his previous work so skillful.
The album is named after a 112-year-old spiritualist camp that boasts two dozen resident clairvoyants in Central Florida. Part answering machine message and part “Outer Limits” theme song, the first track, “Clairaudients (Kill Or Be Killed),” is another of Oberst’s brilliantly strange intros. A clairaudient is someone who supposedly can hear sounds beyond the range of human perception. It looks like Oberst is sending us a message about his feelings and abilities – typical of his pretension to be sure.
While the tempo picks up on the single, “Four Winds,” the next few tracks are mostly unremarkable and often disappointing. What made Bright Eyes’ albums extraordinary in the past was their beginning-to-end majesty. Oberst is typically very exacting, and doesn’t waste a single second or word on his albums, but this time around nearly a third of his latest is made up of mediocre songs like the poky “If The Brakeman Turns My Way” and the banal “Classic Cars.”
There are, fortunately, some high points. The frantic strings on “Middleman” lend the track a kind of Celtic-meets-country sound. The soprano moans and eerily beautiful lyrics on “No One Would Riot for Less” comprise one of the album’s highest points. “Help is coming / You kiss my mouth / Help is here,” he sings.
“Make a Plan to Love Me” is a sad, endearing song about unrequited love that’s destined for someone’s MySpace profile. At first this seems like a romantic ballad, but Oberst is older and more jaded on this album, and after a few verses the song’s bitter center becomes apparent.
Oberst mixes in Eastern flavors on “Coat Check Dream Song,” and cryptic, imagistic lyrics like “Stuck on a ladder to heaven / On trial way back in The Hague / Lullaby sounds from the engine / In my Styrofoam coffin,” crafting a kind of pastiche that’s reminiscent of his stronger earlier work.
For established fans there are still a number of positive aspects to Cassadaga: Oberst’s lyrics and his enchanting voice, with equal parts gravel and sugar, are as good as they’ve ever been. But from someone with so much evident talent it feels like Oberst is holding back.
For all of his emphasis on otherworldliness, clairaudience and moving beyond the secular, Cassadaga flies astonishingly low to the ground.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars